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Hubris

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Hubris

NancyBush is a veteran bank analyst. The following does not constitute investmentadvice, and the views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of theauthor and do not necessarily represent the views of S&P Global MarketIntelligence.

Well, here we go with yet another story of bankingindustry ambition and the push to be the biggest, or the best, or the mosthighly valued bank — or to be seen as the smartest guys (and occasionally thesmartest woman) in the room. I thought that we had left all that stuff behindin the wake of the Financial Crisis, and that with the withdrawal from thepublic eye of major figures like Ken Lewis and Dick Fuld and Sandy Weill — anda host of lesser luminaries — the era of "overweening ambition" (a.k.a.hubris) had come to a welcomed end.

Not quite, apparently. We did have the "Londonwhale" incident back in 2011 to 2012 — in which traders in 's Londonoffice pursued an aggressive strategy of "hedging" with creditdefault swaps and managed to dig a $6 billion hole in the process. That episodeput a major (but not lasting) ding in Jamie Dimon's reputation as the King ofWall Street and led to the requisite resignations, pay clawbacks and forfeitures,congressional hearings, recriminations from regulators, etc., etc. And due tothat large faux-pas — as well as to a scary episode of throat cancer — Mr.Dimon was muted for a while, but has now returned as the industry's mostknowledgeable spokesman and as the reputed possible savior of the Italianbanking industry.

Who could have known that it would be — whichbilled itself as the bank of "the real economy" and had been longseen as the safest of the major banks — that would reveal one of the industry'sbiggest "hubristic events" in years, one which threatens not only itsexistence in its present form but that of its peer banks as well? And foranybody who is pooh-poohing this as a minor tempest in a teapot, I wouldsuggest that you heed the words of Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to JohnStumpf during his appearance before the House Financial Services Committee:"This is only the beginning…" You got that right, brother.

How, and why, do these things keep happening in thebanking industry? While other industries are certainly not scandal-free — and Iwould point to the VW emissions mess as the non-financial analogy to what isnow happening at Wells Fargo — the fact that banks are supposedly regulated bymultiple agencies and are subject to almost unceasing scrutiny (especially atthe very large end), makes it hard to see how in this era of New Banking Normalthis type of multiyear, multiregional and millions-of-accounts scam wentundetected for so long. The sheer scale and duration of the Wells Fargo fraud —and it is that, in no uncertain terms — is what has us all (regulators andinvestors alike) so shocked and will likely result in further harsh punishmentfor both the company's senior managers and its shareholders.

The prevalence of hubris in banking was certainlyeasier to understand in the old days — the late 1990s through the advent of theFinancial Crisis — as it was almost solely related to the consequences of dealsthat were overpriced, done hastily, and never fully rationalized before thenext merger target came along. And if there was a "Capital of Hubris"in the last go-round, it had to be Charlotte, where the hubristic tendencies ofseveral generations of CEOs at Bankof America Corp. and Wachovia (a.k.a., First Union)  came to a crashing end in 2008. It seems inretrospect to have been a consequence of too many large egos in too small a jar,and I'm sure that Harvard Business School will be studying that subject foryears to come.

Anyone who has ever seen me give my standardpresentation on the banking industry will recall a slide toward the end of thedeck where I discuss the elements that make banks successful, or not. Lacking a"widget" — i.e., a distinctive or unique product — the success of abank is determined by the culture that has been nurtured there over generationsof managers and employees, and in my view, the only way to change that cultureis to change the CEO. (And as I also say, sometimes even that doesn't work.)

While Brian Moynihan may not be everyone's idea ofan inspirational leader, the cultural turn that he has effected at Bank ofAmerica has gone a long way toward redeeming that company in the eyes of theinvesting world. While the culture there is now distinctly un-flashy and hasbecome almost geeky with regard to product delivery — a change that does notsit well with some in Charlotte who wish to see their city regain globalbanking dominance — it has produced a company that is vastly less risky and onethat gains in delivering earnings sustainability with each passing quarterlyreport.

John Stumpf of Wells Fargo — called the"Labrador Retriever of Wall Street" in one recent press article — hadbeen seen to be guarding a culture at that company that was indeed centered onselling products and on increasing those sales results over time. But what wenow know — that the company may have been abetting a fraud to make those salesgains happen — seems so at odds with what I have experienced in my interactionswith him and other senior managers there (including Carrie Tolstedt) that Imust admit that I am still having trouble wrapping my head around this thing. Ihope that the investigation that has been opened by the Board there will bemade known to the public as soon as it is completed and that the answers tosome big questions (like why it took so long to get the scam stopped) willbecome more apparent.

Did the sales culture that John Stumpf inheritedfrom Dick Kovacevich — a pretty good salesman in anybody's book — overtakecommon sense? Did the adulation (and valuation) that Wells Fargo received inthe wake of the Wachovia deal spur John Stumpf and Carrie Tolstedt to try tokeep the momentum going, whatever it took, including turning a blind eye tosketchy practices? Did having the largest market cap among the major banksbecome the be-all and the end-all of management direction?  And finally, with the elimination ofcross-selling goals on October 1, what will become the new cultural touchstonefor the new post-sales era?

John Stumpf's resignation (forced or otherwise) fromthe top of the company now seems to me to be a given at this point, and thenthe question of who becomes the next CEO will gain huge importance. I do thinkthat it will be possible for an insider — if there is one who emerges untaintedfrom all of this — to bring the company into a new phase of its existence. ButI think it must be someone who is willing to step back, to talk honestly andopenly with the employees, and to engage with customers at every turn. And thisperson must be willing to devote a year (or two) to a reputation-rebuildingprogram even as regulatory negotiations and recriminations continue to swirl.

Or, if this board is really smart, they will ante upmillions and millions of dollars, send Warren Buffett to Minneapolis, andpersuade (on bended knee, if necessary) Richard Davis of — perhaps the cleanest andleast-hubristic banker in the industry today — that it's time to come home toCalifornia. As a shareholder, I am totally down with that.